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Joseph Veroff: A Celebration of Life

Toni Antonucci, University of Michigan

On November 24th, 2007 friends and family gathered to celebrate the life of Joe Veroff. We gathered in East Hall, the ‘new’ location of the Department of Psychology. Even though the service was held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, one of the most busy travel weekends of the year, the auditorium was full with current and former colleagues, friends, and students. It seemed only fitting that the celebration was in East Hall since Joe had been affiliated with the University of Michigan and department for over fifty years.  He received his Master’s (1952) and Ph.D. (1955) from Michigan, left to spend a year or two as an Assistant Professor at Princeton.  He shortly returned to Ann Arbor first as a Study Director at the Institute for Social Research, later joining the Department of Psychology as an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor.  Joe served in many roles at Michigan, perhaps most noteworthy as graduate chair, where he worked tirelessly for graduate students, an effort culminating in a revolutionary new guaranteed five year funding package for every student.

We all knew Joe hated fancy, pretentious or overly formal events, so we arranged an event that we thought he would ---well, at least not hate.  The ceremony helped us pay our respects to the Joe we all loved.  We did our best to represent the many parts of the world where he had made significant contributions.  As was typical of Veroff events, all were welcome, music, flowers, good food and caring conversation abounded.

We welcomed celebrants into the auditorium with music and flowers, both of which were important to Joe.  The music was terrific, home grown, performed with love and care, both professional and personal.  To begin, Joe’s oldest grandson, Jonas Veroff Bouchard accompanied his partner Genevieve Alarie, with two lovely songs of love and welcome, September Song and My Romance. The flowers were colorful, bursting and a bit wild looking --- just the way Joe grew them out at the lake, where he and Jody had moved full time. The room was filled with the wonderful Veroff family, Jody, the five Veroff ‘children’ Susie, Dan, Paul, David and Matt, their partners, children and grandchildren.

Abby Stewart and David Winter facilitated the event.  Gerald Gurin and Sheila Feld talked of the young Joe.  They have both known Joe for over fifty years.  We used to say that people came to Michigan but never left. That’s less true now, but it sure was true in the old days.  Both Gerry and Sheila worked with Joe on the Americans View Their Mental Health (AVTMH) study.  They spoke with pleasure of working with the serious, bright and committed Joe Veroff, who loved to talk about ideas, loved to argue his point, and who firmly believed in the value of high quality research addressing contemporary issues. James Jackson, now Director of the Institute for Social Research, spoke about working with and learning from Joe as an Assistant Professor – lessons that have followed him through his thirty-five years at Michigan. I, Toni Antonucci, spoke for the post-doctoral fellows who came to work on the replication of the AVTMH in 1977.  I reiterated the comments of others but noted what a privilege it was to come as a post-doc and be treated as an intellectual equal (even when it wasn’t true) by a benevolent but caring Papa Joe.  He was a man who so clearly loved ideas, encouraged thinking, social justice, held strong opinions but was incredibly tolerant of others. I couldn’t help but note that working with him now for over thirty years; he has maintained all those wonderful characteristics. 

Patricia Gurin, spoke as a former graduate student of Joe’s and then later as chair of the Department.  It was she who convinced Joe to become graduate chair – quite a feat since Joe hated committees, administration, and pretty much anything bureaucratic.  She spoke of the hard work and strong commitment Joe put into developing the five year funding package our students now enjoy. Terri Orbuch reflected on her years as an Assistant Professor, meeting Joe and being invited to join the groundbreaking Early Years of Marriage (EYM) study. She remembers being welcomed in a warm and personal way at a difficult time when she was feeling very much the isolated.  She spoke of the honor and responsibility of now leading EYM.  Donna Henderson-King represented the graduate students who had worked with Joe and spoke of how he taught them to value all aspects of their work, the research, the teaching, the personal connection with the people we teach.  Wendy and Jim House shared memories of knowing Joe and Jody as young graduate students and later as friends and colleagues.  In a theme repeated by many, they mentioned the consistency and warmth of Joe’s intellectual principals and personal integrity.  Herbert Eagle added the personal, neighborly touch.  He spoke of sharing many hours together, sharing thoughts about movies, books, kids and politics – and reminded us again about the human, interested and interesting man Joe was. The Veroff children each spoke.  It was a very moving moment for them and everyone in the room.  We all came away wanting these children to be ours, and wanting to be the father that Joe clearly was to them.  Before we adjourned to enjoy good food and good wine together in the great Veroff tradition, people were invited to offer their thoughts and memories about Joe.  Our final moments together were made very special by Harvey Reed, an old friend and former colleague who played You Don’t Know What Love Is.

It is hard to capture on paper with pencil (or on computer with keyboard), the joy in the room, shared by all who were honored and privileged to have some part of Joe in their lives.  But there were a few themes I should note that might help to capture the moment and the man, for you, reader.  Joe loved to work hard, but loved family and friends even more.  As his last book with Fred Bryant attests, he thought we should all savor life – he did.  He was tolerant of others, but would certainly share his point of view, even when, perhaps especially when, he disagreed. He was supportive of others, even when he thought they were wrong.  He loved to cook and he was a great host. Everyone remembers wonderful dinners with Joe and Jody in an environment that made you proud to be a part of their world. To me, Joe was a man who embodied the principals of SPSSI.

Joe Veroff left a rich intellectual and personal legacy.  He was a colleague, mentor and friend to the SPSSI family.

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